Hearing granted to unseal drilling settlement

December 19, 2012

For more than a year, the Observer-Reporter and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette have been fighting to gain access to a sealed legal settlement between a Mt. Pleasant Township couple and a group of gas drilling companies.

Their quest began in Washington County Common Pleas Court. It then made its way to the state Commonwealth Court and then Superior Court, before being sent back here for deposition.

On Wednesday, attorneys for the newspapers asked President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca to grant an expedited half-day hearing to on their arguments in favor of unsealing the legal settlement between Stephanie and Chris Hallowich and Range Resources, MarkWest Energy Partners and Williams Gas/Laurel Mountain Midstream.

“I am painfully aware of this case,” said O’Dell Seneca, adding she had familiarized herself with the case knowing it was headed back to the county court from the state Superior Court, which found former Judge Paul Pozonsky had erred when he denied the newspapers a chance to at least present their arguments for unsealing of the legal settlement.

Before setting a hearing date for 9:30 a.m. Jan. 18, the judge briefly questioned the attorneys on the reasoning behind Pozonsky’s sealing of the settlement when neither the Hallowiches nor the drilling companies had requested it be sealed in its entirety. Instead, attorneys only sought to seal the portion involving Hallowiches’ two minor children.

“My understanding is that everything should be open,” she said. “I don’t understand what happened here.”

In the meantime, O’Dell Seneca asked the attorneys to discuss exactly what portion of the settlement is at issue and possibly reach an agreement in the matter before returning for the hearing. The gas drilling companies, however, have until Jan. 7 to appeal the Superior Court’s ruling.

The Hallowiches had claimed that nearby drilling operations, a compressor station and a gas processing plant made their property worthless and posed health risks to their family. Their lawsuit was settled Aug. 23, 2011, following a closed-door meeting in Pozonsky’s chambers. The case file was immediately sealed, and all parties were forbidden to discuss any portion of the agreement.

During the August 2011 session, a P-G reporter openly objected to the sealing of the settlement. The newspapers contend sealing the record is in violation of the common law rights of the media.

On Sept. 6, 2011, the P-G petitioned the court to intervene, and the O-R joined the petition.

Pozonsky contended the newspapers should have sought to intervene in the case before final action was taken to seal the settlement.

In its ruling, however, the three-member Superior Court panel found Pozonsky should have more “liberally” construed a state rule and accepted arguments from the newspapers.

Pozonsky suddenly retired from office June 30 amid reports that he was the subject of a state grand jury investigation. He has since moved to Alaska.

Linda Metz has been with the Observer-Reporter since 2000, covering Washington County courts and politics, as well as the city of Washington. She previously was employed by the Tribune Review. She is a graduate of Point Park College, now a university, in Pittsburgh.

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